LOUISVILLE, Ky. ― Three years ago this week, jubilant Kentucky Republicans declared their Democratic rivals were gone for good. On election night 2016, voters handed the GOP its first legislative majority in nearly a century ― and gave Republicans total control of the Bluegrass State.
The “victory for Republicans finally closes the chapter on Democrat rule in Frankfort,” U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican, declared that evening. “This is literally the last nail in their coffin.”
But now, on the eve of the state’s first major election since they lost everything, Kentucky Democrats claim that this state, where they’ve won 10 of the last 12 governor’s races dating back to 1971, isn’t totally red yet. Limited pre-race polling for Tuesday’s governor’s race has shown the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Andy Beshear, at worst tied with Gov. Matt Bevin, the archconservative firebrand who has bullied his way through four years in Frankfort.
“Kentucky, of all places, knows where our future lies,” Rep. John Yarmuth, the state’s only congressional Democrat, told a who’s who of party officials as they picked over a chicken dinner in a ritzy ballroom in downtown Louisville in September.
“I think we might just win this thing,” state Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville liberal, said recently.
Beshear’s battle with Bevin ― one of three Southern gubernatorial contests that will take place this month ― has re-energized Kentucky Democrats, turning the faint pulse the party detected in 2018, when it picked up one seat in the state House and slashed into the GOP’s overall vote margin statewide, into something closer to a throb. At least for now.
A Beshear victory on Tuesday, McGarvey said, would “show that in Kentucky, given the choice between a really unpopular Republican and a Democrat who mostly talks about economic issues, public education and health care, we can win.” Another loss, though, would prove equally devastating, because if Democrats can’t win now ― against the least popular Republican governor in America, who struggled to win support from his own party in May’s primary and has antagonized and enraged seemingly everyone in this state at some point over the last four years ― it’s hard to imagine they have much of a near-term future here at all.
Bevin shouldn’t be vulnerable, at least not as vulnerable as he is. For four years, the governor has presented himself as Kentucky’s version of President Donald Trump: He regularly blasts his critics in social media tirades that are filled with petty insults about journalists who cover him, judges who issue rulings he dislikes and political opponents (from his party or the other) who dare question him.
That approach has worked for Trump, who won Kentucky by 30 percentage points in 2016 and remains popular there. But it hasn’t worked for Bevin, whose support has plummeted not only among Democrats, who despise him, but also among moderates and members of his own party. Nearly 40% of Republicans backed Bevin’s little-known opponent in May’s primary, and one GOP state legislator has endorsed Beshear. A late push from Trump, who tweeted his support of Bevin in late October, has bolstered his approval among Republican voters, a recent Morning Consult poll showed, though it’s still modest.
The Trump bump has saved Bevin from going into election day as the most unpopular governor in the country ― that’s now Rhode Island Democrat Gina Raimondo, according to the Morning Consult ratings ― and he may get another boost when Trump stops in Lexington to campaign for him Monday. But Bevin’s abrasive style could still leave him adrift in a state with a political culture that was historically “less confrontational” than national politics, said Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political science professor.
“This is part of Bevin’s problem,” Voss said. “He does not approach politics with the conservative style that has historically been the norm around here.”
It’s also possible that Bevin has overestimated the state’s conservative shift, especially on economic issues. He might have been fine had he stopped after signing an anti-union “right to work” law and repealing the state’s prevailing wage provision, as he and the new Republican legislature did immediately after taking control in 2017. But he didn’t.
Bevin has attempted to gut Obamacare, which helped 1 in 9 Kentuckians gain access to health care for the first time and is now popular among residents. He has tried to enact severe budget cuts that put dozens of state programs at risk. He has approved tax cuts for big banks while refusing to consider new lines of revenue to help bolster the state’s general fund. He has taken aim at Kentucky’s crisis-stricken and underfunded pension system by trying to transform it into a defined-contribution plan, and Bevin and the GOP’s reforms, some experts and Democrats have said, would potentially help funnel millions of taxpayer dollars into risky investments that could both fail to fix the system and further enrich hedge funders and Wall Street financial advisers.
And although he vetoed tax cuts that would benefit the wealthiest Kentuckians, Bevin recently said he would use a second term to end the state income tax in favor of higher sales taxes, which would shift the state’s tax burden toward the poor and working classes.
It’s a popular agenda among Bevin’s biggest backers ― the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council counts him among its “best of the best” lawmakers ― but it may test just how far Kentuckians have moved on economic concerns.
“It’s the social and cultural issues that moved this state rightward,” said Voss, the University of Kentucky political scientist. “When it was, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ people here were voting for the Clintons.”
Nothing has exemplified Bevin’s potential problems more than his ongoing feud with public school teachers across Kentucky, a yearlong saga that has highlighted and exacerbated his biggest vulnerabilities.
“This is part of Bevin’s problem. He does not approach politics with the conservative style that has historically been the norm around here.””
Last spring, at the end of the 2018 Kentucky General Assembly session, GOP lawmakers tried to force through a series of changes to the state’s pension program by attaching them to a bill that otherwise dealt with sewage-related issues. That led to what was effectively a strike by public educators, who called in sick and shut down schools across the state before they flocked to Frankfort, the state capital, for mass protests. Pensions weren’t the only issue: Teachers at the protest saw Bevin, who has also signed legislation legalizing charter schools and approved budgets that have cut funding for K-12 education, as an antagonist to the very idea of public schooling, and they were joined by organized state employees who saw it all as the next step in a concerted attack on working folks.
The unpopularity of the policies was one thing. Bevin’s reaction to them was another. Before teachers were home from the capital, Bevin blamed them for hypothetical cases of child abuse. “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” he said. (He later apologized.)
The protests died down after a few weeks, but they left a lasting effect on the state’s politics: KY 120 United, a group that started on Facebook to organize the teacher demonstrations, has remained active, and teachers’ pledge to legislators that they would “Remember in November” last year has carried over to this election. Bevin won a low-turnout race in 2015; this time, he’s facing a motivated opposition that he’s only bolstered, and not just in places like deep-blue Louisville, where teachers staged another round of sickouts and protests this year. (Bevin’s Labor Cabinet investigated the teachers who called in sick; the governor blamed teachers for a student getting shot on a day when schools were closed.) He may also have hurt himself in smaller, rural counties, where public schools, health systems and the state government are often the largest employers.
“[The teachers] have been able to whip up a decent amount of anti-Bevin fervor in places that are generally Republican,” Voss said. “And they’ve also been able to keep the focus of the governor’s race on economic and lunch-pail issues, more so than usual.”
That has benefited Beshear, at least during the campaign. Beshear is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage in a state where abortion rights are overwhelmingly unpopular and marriage equality enjoys the support of the slimmest majority. But neither have been central issues in a race dominated by economic questions, and Beshear ― who, in contrast to Bevin, is as message-disciplined a politician as there is ― rarely broaches either subject.
Instead, Beshear has focused primarily on health care and public education, and he has directly attached himself to the teacher movement. Last spring, he sued to block the pension law that sparked the teacher protests and won ― the state Supreme Court tossed out the law in December. During the primary, he tapped Jacqueline Coleman, a high school assistant principal who participated in the protests, as his running mate. In an interview with HuffPost, Beshear called Bevin “the greatest threat to public education we have ever seen in this state” and declared that “the very future of whether or not there is going to be funding for our public schools is on the line” Tuesday.
He also blasted Bevin’s proposed tax reforms and his claims that Kentucky is prospering economically at a time when workers are “falling further behind because their wages don’t go up.” (Kentucky’s economy is doing well by its standards, but wage and economic growth have lagged behind the national average.) And he painted Bevin, a hedge fund manager, as an out-of-touch rich guy: “Each and every one of his policies suggest that there are two classes of Kentuckians,” Beshear said. “Him and his rich buddies, and then everyone else.”
That populist-lite approach can at times prove an awkward fit for the son of a former governor with a prestigious law degree, and Beshear’s attempts to paint himself as a Bluegrass everyman have drawn mocking responses from Bevin. “You love public education so much that your kids go to private school,” the governor said at a recent debate in a testy exchange that ended with Bevin calling Beshear “a fraud.”
But Beshear’s basic argument is an appeal to Kentuckians’ allegedly genteel political preferences, and their pocketbooks, too. Bevin’s a bully, and for all the wrong reasons. “It’s not just this governor’s approach or that he calls people names,” Beshear said. “It’s that his policies are detrimental to Kentucky.”
The task of rejuvenating downtrodden Kentucky Democrats is not a new one for the Beshear family: In 2007, Steve Beshear ― Andy’s father, and a former lieutenant governor, attorney general and state representative ― easily defeated scandal-prone Gov. Ernie Fletcher, whose victory four years prior broke Democrats’ three-decade hold on the governorship and was supposed to turn Kentucky red for good.
Fletcher’s tumultuous time as governor and the elder Beshear’s eight years in power — he won a second term in 2011 — helped Democrats hold on to their majority in the statehouse and earn some massive victories, including Beshear’s decision to make Kentucky the only state which former President Barack Obama lost twice that fully implemented the Affordable Care Act. But it also kept them from realizing that the party’s infrastructure had begun to atrophy and that the registration advantage Democrats had enjoyed since the New Deal era had become a mirage.
“Each and every one of his policies suggest that there are two classes of Kentuckians. Him and his rich buddies, and then everyone else.”
There shouldn’t be any such illusions this time around, especially in an election that seems primarily a referendum on Bevin. The governor’s “self-inflicted damage” may have handed Democrats “a one-time opportunity,” said Western Kentucky University political scientist Scott Lasley. “I would think that 2020,” when the entire Kentucky statehouse and half of the state Senate will be up for reelection, “is a return back to normal.”
Even if that’s not true, a victorious Beshear would take control of a state where Democrats face a long, grinding battle to shift power back in their direction, at least outside of reliably blue cities like Louisville and Lexington and in suburban counties that may trend their way over time. “The structural advantages for Republicans are going to hold through for the next decade, I think,” Lasley said.
But there is some momentum behind Democrats here, party leaders insist, and, at the very least, the national perception that Kentucky is a deep red state verging on lost-cause status isn’t a view they share.
“There’s this belief that just the whole state went red,” said Marisa McNee, the spokesperson for and deputy executive director of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “It has been turning red, but I think there is still a lot of organizing to be done that can turn the tide.”
After the 2016 beatdown, Democrats finally began to revamp the party in an effort to address the problems that years of largely unchecked power created. It was an effort to build a movement that “is looking not just towards the next election, but to the next 20 years,” said Ben Self, who was elected chairman of the state party in 2017.
“It means building a permanent campaign infrastructure that sits here year in and year out,” Self said. “That means fundraising all the time. That means communications all the time. That means a digital program that runs all the time. … Because we haven’t had to organize for 20, 30 years, there isn’t that network of professional campaign staff that you see in other states. So we’ve got to build that.”
Democrats weren’t as successful as they’d hoped to be last year during a cycle in which teacher anger and big money from a high-profile congressional race had the party dreaming of a bigger shake-up in the state than the one seat they gained in the state House. But there were positive signs: Democrats flipped seven GOP-held seats in districts Trump won in 2016 (they lost six seats they’d previously held in Trump districts), and carved into the GOP’s popular vote majority in legislative races, which shrunk from 20 points in 2016 to just 8 last year. Democrats also elected 18 women to the Kentucky General Assembly, double their previous record.
Patti Minter, a history professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, was one of those women. A longtime LGBTQ activist, Minter won a five-way Democratic primary running as an unapologetic progressive and then knocked off her Republican opponent by 7 percentage points last November. Minter’s race was always tilted in Democrats’ favor, given that it was in a district they’ve held for 40 years. But it was evidence of the energy that exists outside traditional party structures, too, especially in an area where any consultant would bristle at the idea of a candidate marching with drag queens three weeks before election day, as Minter did.
Minter is a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a progressive grassroots organization with more than 12,000 members that has become more engaged in elections in recent years, after it launched a political action committee. She is also an activist with the Fairness Campaign, an LGBTQ rights group that has won the approval of 10 citywide ordinances to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination across the state in the last five years and in 2018 helped Democrats beat Kim Davis, the county clerk who notoriously refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses in 2015. And Minter was persuaded to jump into the race by Emerge Kentucky, a fledgling organization that trains women to run for office and has so far recruited 35 candidates who’ve gone on to win elections, primarily at the local level.
“People thought that Bowling Green was a far more conservative place than it is, and I think we’ve proven that to be absolutely wrong,” Minter said. “People are starting to see that the deck is stacked against them, and they want people who are going to stand up for them and show up for them. If we can mobilize that in Bowling Green, there are plenty of other places that could be mobilized.”
Kentucky is not going to suddenly turn blue any time soon, no matter the outcome of Beshear and Bevin’s fight this week. But ahead of a 2020 cycle that will give them another chance to pick at the GOP’s sizable majorities in the legislature and flood the state with tens of millions of dollars from national Democrats and progressives eager to oust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Tuesday’s election is a test of Kentucky’s vitals and whether the party inside the coffin that Republicans thought they’d nailed shut has enough of a pulse to crack it open again.
CORRECTION: This story has been changed to reflect what fraction of the Kentucky state Senate is up for reelection in 2020. It is half, not one-third.